There’s a banging and a clanking on the line from south London. To the disturbed soundtrack of a Bach sonata, Edmund de Waal, writer, academic (he is professor of ceramics at the University of Westminster) and renowned English potter, is rearranging his pots.
“I’ve always had a simple pleasure in moving things around. I think that is something that people share – a basic aesthetic pleasure in taking something and putting it somewhere else and seeing how it changes. That is something I really love.”
De Waal makes vessels, beautiful kaolin clay cylinders, jars, dishes, pots – slightly crooked, minimally coloured, vaguely ethereal, infused with a presence that has won him numerous prizes and commissions, including group installations – “cargos”, he calls them – for the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Britain.
It is a lifetime’s obsession with the singular pleasure of objects. At five, he asked his father to take him to a pottery evening class. He made a small dumpy bowl and insisted it be coloured white.
“I know. I have no idea why. I had a strong sense of place as a child. The places we were living were extraordinary: large medieval houses [his father is former chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral and dean of Canterbury Cathedral] in cathedral towns. We had pots and crockery but I think it was more abstract, something to do with making and creating something, having control over something; a sense of wanting to get to grips with this thing.”
In 2005, de Waal found himself trying to get to grips with a collection of an altogether different nature – 264 netsuke, small Japanese ivory and wood carvings traditionally used as toggles for kimonos, passed down through five generations of family members to their current resting place next to the piano in his crowded home.
Where did they come from, this odd arrangement of carved turtles, rats, fish and hares, the beggars, the street vendors, the ivory monk asleep over his alms bowl (de Waal’s favourite)? How did they get to the Tokyo apartment of his great-uncle Iggie, where de Waal first clapped eyes on them some 30 years ago? How did they come into the possession of his family, the fabulously wealthy Ephrussi dynasty, Jewish grain merchants from Odessa turned European banking royalty?
Such questions resulted in The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, a unique and wildly successful (translated into eight languages, awarded a number of prizes, recently released as an illustrated version and still washing around the bestseller lists) family memoir, a mighty tale of loss and survival as revealed through these small, hard, chippable bibelots, the last vestige of the once-vast Ephrussi collection.
“I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been,” de Waal writes. “I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows … I want to know what it has witnessed.”
The book traces the netsuke (pronounced “net-ski” or “net-skay”) back to a Parisian apartment in the late 1870s, to a black vitrine with velvet-lined shelves and a mirrored back standing among a prized collection of Italian embroideries, Impressionist paintings and Renaissance furniture in the famed salon of de Waal’s ancestor Charles Ephrussi.
Charles is a critic, collector, editor and art historian, a passionate supporter and patron of the Impressionists (he is there in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, stiff-backed and top-hatted), a Parisian aesthete “whose commissions and pronouncements and cut of jacket were scrutinised”. At the forefront of Europe’s fascination with all things oriental – Japonisme is to the Ephrussi, wrote journalist George Sala in 1878, “like a sort of religion” – he fills his apartment with Japanese art, lacquerware and 264 netsuke.
In 1899, he sends the collection to his cousin Viktor von Ephrussi, de Waal’s great grandfather, as a wedding present.
“I am anxious about where my boxwood wolf and my ivory tiger are going,” writes de Waal. “I book a ticket to Vienna and set out for the Palais Ephrussi.”
Off he goes. We go with him.
Viktor and his socialite wife, the beautiful Emmy, live in the Palais Ephrussi, “more of a fortress or watchtower than house”, on Vienna’s fashionable Ringstrasse. Here, the vitrine is stationed in Emmy’s dressing room, a small haven of rare intimacy where the Ephrussi children – including de Waal’s grandmother, Elisabeth, and her brother Iggie – are free to play with the “curious, funny” objects while their mother tells them bedtime stories.
It is a charming scene, a “Dulac children’s book in Vienna”, but shadowing the Ephrussi rise to wealth is the looming presence of anti-Semitism. In Paris, the munificent Charles falls from societal grace during the Dreyfus Affair, the unjustified conviction for treason of French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus. In 1938, after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, the Palais Ephrussi is ransacked by the Gestapo. Furniture is smashed, art works pilfered. The family flees, Emmy dies. And the netsuke?
In 1945, Elisabeth returns to her childhood home to find the family servant Anna managed to hide the entire collection in her mattress. (Their survival is an affront, writes de Waal. “I cannot bear for it to slip into symbolism. Why should they have got through the war in a hiding-place, when so many hidden people did not? … These stories unravel me.”)
The netsuke are taken to England, stuffed inside Elisabeth’s leather attaché case. Two years later, she gives them to her brother, de Waal’s great-uncle Iggie, now living in Tokyo. It is here the teenage de Waal, halfway through his apprentice to a “rather severe English potter”, first sees this strange collection.
Throughout the journey, from Parisian salon to Viennese dressing room to a hiding place of Austrian horsehair, de Waal is detective, onlooker, intrigued commentator. We see him rifling through archives, scouring art collections, laying out the “thin trail of blue letters” from Elisabeth in Switzerland as the Reich tightens its loop around the citizenry of Europe.
He lingers outside former family homes (the Ephrussi bank in Odessa, the Hotel Ephrussi in Paris, the mad overstatement of the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna), peering through the opaque windows of his family’s past, tentatively unearthing a story of family exile and diaspora, the decline of a dynasty, the frailty of memory (there are overtones of WG Sebald’s digressive slant on history), the fragmentation of narrative that seems to haunt accounts of the Holocaust.
“In the broadest brush, I knew they were Jewish, that they had lots of money and they lost it. But the scale of their lives and their loss and the tribulations – my surprise was absolutely genuine. I wasn’t brought up with these stories. That’s not a big deal for children of refugees – you don’t want to differentiate yourself in relation to the country that you have adopted.”
Nor do you want to lapse into sentimentality. In an essay on the book, de Waal describes his “strong aversion to nostalgia for a past that isn’t yours. And the thought of yet another posh Mitteleuropa memoir set to Strauss, cross-generational misery-lit, made me slightly sick.”
It’s not about over-emoting, he says, it’s about discretion – a very difficult thing to achieve in writing, “but Primo Levi” – de Waal is an avid admirer – “did it with such beauty.
So many people have written amazingly about the Holocaust but how can you write about things that really matter so that the reader can inhabit what is occurring without being weighted down by the oppression of emotion?”
The answer in de Waal’s story lies in the inarguable presence of the netsuke, not as a narrative device but as an anchor, a compass. “They demanded exactitude. At the risk of sounding too precious, they were just there.”
In the south London studio, there is more clanging and banging. De Waal is working on a commission for a US client, rearranging the 150 pieces that form a single work entitled This Is Just to Say, after the poem by William Carlos Williams. At the moment, he says, it is “too congested, too emphatic”. He needs to make more room between the pots, “make the breathing spaces more apparent”.
He has begun another five-year book, this one about the colour white, about “memory and place”, beginning with porcelain “and going on from there”.
In the meantime, he and artist and writer Claudia Clare have written The Pot Book, a grand tour of 300 ceramic works, a monument to personal obsession.
“With The Pot Book, there is a strongly authored sense that you may not find in another book. It’s not bombastic or telling people what to think or anything else like that. It’s not a cultural history or critical text. The main criteria was delight.”
So you find a black basalt earthenware bowl by New Zealander Keith Murray facing a 1300-1200BC Mycenaean krater, a glazed bottle from Korea’s Koryo Period (918-1392) opposite 1950s Saxbo ware from Denmark (the curves, the gleaming surfaces – there are similarities).
I ask him about titles – The Pot Book, rather than a history of ceramic art, a potter rather than ceramist.
“Potters over the millennia have made vessels, it’s part of who we are as human beings – it’s as deep and essential as that. What I do now is not utilitarian but at the same time the impulse to make vessels comes out of all those impulses to create something.
“And can you think of a more honest word or vocation than being a potter? I can’t.”
THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES: A HIDDEN INHERITANCE, by Edmund de Waal (Vintage, $29.99); THE POT BOOK, by Edmund de Waal with Claudia Clare (Phaidon, $70).